Image: “Everybody’s Going Somewhere” by A.C. Koch, iPhone 5 photograph, black and white, 2015, 12×12 in.
How it Ends
By Rosanna Staffa
Stiff chairs, pens scratching. We sat at a large table, budding playwrights in summer clothes and fresh haircuts. The mentor looked tiny and mysterious, with beautiful black hair and delicate skin. I was afraid of her. She was terribly smart and famous. I took notes slowly and carefully to show I was confident, then very fast, as I feared missing anything. During our lunch break, I sat quietly, and she did too. I watched her write in her notebook. There was sunlight on part of her face. I wanted to write about love.
I wrote down: You have to create a test to dramatize the center of this human being. Afterwards, you have to say, ‘I know this person.’
One night on a train ride from Moscow to Rostov-On-Don, an Armenian tried to buy me from my husband. The Armenian offered four goats and threw in an extra one for my leather jacket. The three of us were alone in the dark corridor, the man gesturing and intense. It felt as if it could really happen; I was going to follow this stranger to his farm, with only a few phrases of Russian taken from Chekhov. Later, my husband and I laughed. There was no other woman then. We slept on the train like riding over water.
Don’t ever say that you are going to tell a story.
The room in the theatre started to look like a lived-in place—a home a bit neglected, where a busy family came and went. Whenever I chanced upon the other students on the street, they seemed different, or maybe it was someone else altogether who looked like them.
Before leaving New York, my husband had given away his clothes to friends. I occasionally recognized a shirt of his on someone in a café. I wished to find this humorous.
In the workshop, the play I started had a lot of wit; the she and he I wrote about were a playful couple—whimsical, even—while naming the trouble in their relationship, which was about to crash. When I read it aloud to the class, I enjoyed the buzz of laughter it received. The mentor listened attentively and did not laugh. At home, I went over what I had written and started anew.
Careful about humor, the charge and reward of it. Getting a response is a trap.
There was a photograph of my husband I had loved. He was a little boy clutching his dog, squinting in the sun. Strands of hair fell on his face. He was laughing, and we had made a game of guessing what caused it.
“Well, it was a funny start for a play,” a young man in the workshop said. “I liked it. There is, you know, a kind of comfort in laughing.”
Before my husband and I separated, there wasn’t any. We made each other laugh as a way to check we were still there, surprised by that each time.
When I lived with my husband, he had a parrot he talked to while walking back and forth after a shower, rubbing a towel over his head. The parrot paced in tiny steps; we observed each other without curiosity. Later, the parrot must have looked the same way at the other woman—or differently.
In the class, we talked of using visions and apparitions in our work. A man felt they would be distracting. Another liked them as a signal of an unspoken longing. A young woman said she wanted to use them; they would create an opening in the text where meaning could filter through—possibly a dangerous one.
One afternoon, I thought I saw my husband with a young woman, talking with their heads close in a café in a part of New York I had never visited. The couple was sitting way in the back, and they turned out to be someone else. But in that instant, it was my husband I saw with another woman, and then I knew.
Once, I asked my husband how many women he had loved before me but then I said, “No, don’t tell me.” I was holding a glass of wine in each hand. I said, “I don’t want to know.”
You should not know how it ends.
During the break, a young woman with sharp blue eyes argued that she wanted to have an ending in mind when she started writing. She saw it as a passport she might use or not, but it made her more daring. A man joined the conversation. He was not sure he wanted to know the ending. In fact, he had refused to see a doctor for years, preferring the edge of being surprised by whatever happened. He had an androgynous beauty. We both had curly dark hair, unruly, as if it belonged to someone else.
“Do you write about your life?” the man asked.
“No,” I said.
“We all do,” he said. “That’s why we’re so afraid of being boring and come to a workshop for help.”
I did not mind boredom. In fact, I liked the sheer terror of thinking it would never end, and then it would. My breakup had been very slow, then fast. It became increasingly difficult for me to retrace our love story, like reading a book backwards from the end. Sometimes, we did that together at bedtime; it was amusing and a little sad, as we still hoped Anna Karenina would decide not to end it that way.
When we returned to our seats in the class, the mentor asked us not to change places every time, as it made it harder for her to remember our names. We all agreed. But in two weeks, we had never switched places.
“She’s daydreaming,” someone said. We all murmured in warm agreement. There was a sense of hope in seeing the mentor as lost as we were.
“Okay, tell me your names again,” she repeated at the beginning of every class, then wrote them down. It didn’t seem to help. We pretended it was no big deal; we were nine students, after all. We were exhausted by the labor of writing and didn’t care much about our names. I didn’t mind if she remembered me with a different one, as long as she remembered me. I could not pin down what would attract her attention, so very sharp and dangerously intense. When I felt it on me, I remembered lizards, the way they stopped, completely still, when watched. Their entire body knew.
In the play I started during the workshop, I did not write of spending the nights on my couch, though I liked doing this; it reminded me of traveling. I ate when hungry, and it did not matter what. Everything was temporary, and I took it in stride.
I was deceitful in my writing only to make my lies true—better than anything real. I wrote of watching my husband let his bath towel fall off his body, and I wrote of his tongue exploring my skin, waking me up in our bed. The more I worked, the more the she and he in my play gained a smell and a way of speaking; they became real. This reminded me of observing my father develop negatives in his darkroom. Shadows floated up on the blank sheet, at first only a trace, then a figure emerged slowly in every detail. It had been there the whole time, where nothing seemed to exist. In fact, the image in the finished photo always felt more vital than the real person.
During the weeks of the workshop, I kept dreaming of my husband. In the dream, it was always early morning. He shuffled from our bedroom and into our kitchen barefoot like I remembered, and I didn’t even look up from the newspaper. Everything was just as usual; it would go on forever.
The process of writing grew more difficult rather than easier, and the mentor seemed to think this was just the way it should be. One day, I threw out my best lines; they were too polished. When I told the mentor what I’d done, I was clearly upset. She asked if I remembered them, and I said no. “There,” she said with a tiny gesture of her hand. But I was thinking of the lines, and I wished I had kept them. I liked keeping.
Careful about your strength, what you are good at. Explore.
During our break, I ate an apple, watching the mentor look outside. Features softened, she seemed to take in everything eagerly, fully absorbed in it. It was just the busy city in the distance. ‘Hello,’ I wanted to call out. ‘Hello. Look at me right here instead. I’m taking in every word you say.’ I was distressed, angry at her. She was just a schoolmarm, this rule and that rule, clearly bored by flesh and blood. By me.
She turned her head toward me, a faint smile on her lips. “You love birds,” she said. And then I noticed how my eyes always went to them. A bird on a bench. A bird hopping on the sidewalk. A bird opening the wings to take off.
Attention to the theme of victim, falling in love with the suffering. It’s uninteresting.
There was a noise of traffic and ambulances outside the window, which the mentor closed. She was the first person I met who never seemed to feel the need to be distracted.
We were at the stage of working toward an ending for our plays, all of us visibly strained. The mentor said an emotional clarity reached at the end of a play could still be disturbing—unresolved.
There is a constant process of revealing, finding the way, rather than knowing where it is going.
She wanted us to keep the spontaneity alive. She asked us to open our notebooks.
Write a line. Write an object. Write a time of the day. Write a setting.
She gave us ten to twenty minutes to write the scene, saying she felt the urgency would keep the work authentic—free the creativity.
A kitchen and divorce papers came to me. They had been lying on a small chair for a while. Three AM. That was when I often visualized my husband waiting in the kitchen for me to sign the papers. He looked both agitated and hopeful.
I could not write a thing.
If a character resists, don’t push. Give them rope. Let them be with the action a little bit longer in your imagination.
I kept looking at the man I loved standing in the kitchen—the way he held his head, the hint of beard growth. A gray light came from the window. He leaned over to look me in the eyes. “Look,” he said. He did not finish the sentence. He bowed his head and cried.
I started writing. In the scene, the husband walked into the kitchen he and the woman had once shared. She studied him, trying to figure out what she truly wanted. He seemed shy. He brought his hand to his hair to brush it with his fingers. It reminded her of the first night they had spent together. She asked him what he remembered of it. He remembered everything—the wine, the titles on the spines of the books by the bed. The memory had the opposite effect of what she imagined. She saw that this man who had finally convinced her to sign the papers wasn’t the one she had been in love with and still badly desired. This person was different; he was not the man she missed. It wasn’t just the distance of time. He did not write notes on the bathroom mirror or read to her in bed. He was someone else. She tore out of the bookcase a book she had read to the man she loved, opened it, recited one line, then hurled it out the window. But the window was closed, and glass crashed to the floor. The husband also took out a book he had read to her and did the same. They went through all of them. By the end, the sidewalk was filled with books like dead birds. When they were done, she reached for the pen. She signed the divorce papers to the stranger.
Let yourself be surprised.
At the end of the workshop’s last day, I walked with the mentor to her subway stop, keeping up a nervous chatter. Eventually, I’d ask her what she thought of my play. I hoped she would look hard at me and respond, ‘It does not matter. Send it out, will you?’
But I did not ask her. She talked of her childhood home, how far it was. How certain music unlocked that old door for her and she was inside again.
We arrived at the subway’s entrance. She gave a little wave and a smile, but it might have been a grin because of the sun. It was nice anyway. When she started down the steps, I said, “Well, I was thinking…” She turned, and I panicked. I waved and hurried off. At home, I simply did it; I sent out the play.
Almost two years later, a young woman who had been in the workshop asked me to have a drink with her. We met at a small bar with theatre posters on the walls. She remembered my play very well. “Yeah, I got a divorce out of it,” I laughed.
A workshop of her own play was scheduled in a few weeks, and she wanted to invite me. She had intended to ask the mentor too but had heard she was not well. In fact, the mentor was doing so badly, she’d been admitted to a clinic. Her mind was not the same. I was incredulous. “Trust me,” she said.
The woman’s play had been about tending to a mother who did not recognize her as her child anymore. Still, the mother found her a pleasant enough young lady, who came by with sweets, and so very funny with her insistence that not only she had gotten married but had had a daughter. Do I have a son too? she chided. No, just a daughter, was the answer. Do you have a picture of her?
The play ended with the daughter alone on stage, reading a list of things the mother had liked very much and now forgotten.
I had loved it, and afterwards, I did not sleep. I was attached to memories.
“Are things going well?” the playwright asked me at the end of our evening.
“Sure,” I said. “You know. Sending work out. Waiting.” We both chuckled. Yeah.
Careful about complaint in a monologue. It’s one note, no oxygen, does not breathe.
The ping of the email came in the early hours of the morning. I was still awake, watching the sky and the trees. In the complete quiet, New York seemed a foreign city I had never seen; there was just me in a silent nowhere. I still liked to sleep on the couch. There, I did not wake up thinking of the man with whom I was still in love. There was so much space between us now that his day was my night. I could not imagine the outline of his life; he might or might not keep his hair long and drink his coffee black.
The email was from a literary manager at an important theatre—a woman with vivid eyes and large teeth, who had been eager to know about my life during a brief meeting months back. I spilled coffee and had sweaty armpits, but she made me feel interesting, with stories to tell. She had offered to read my play. The title was in the header of the email that popped up.
A hint of familiarity came with an email sent at such an early hour when nothing was happening—a playfulness. I thought I knew what this meant. Still, I did not open it. I kept staring at the screen like it was important to get good at it.
In the email, the literary manager thanked me warmly for sending her my new play and said she appreciated the opportunity to read it. But while she responded to the writing, the theatre could not find a fit for it.
It seemed the literary manager had entered the stillness of the room and was looking around. She absorbed the messiness, the piles of newspapers and books. She saw that I’d stolen sugar packets in cafes and old postcards in used bookstores. I thought that if she did find something to her liking, maybe a plant, she would mention a part of my play she had enjoyed, which now seemed terribly ugly to me, and I would discover it too.
When I signed the register at the clinic, my hand was shaking. I had slept badly and somehow felt it was imperative to concentrate. The place reminded me of a hotel in the off season—the ones my husband and I could afford. Old people stranded in armchairs, bad coffee, TV babbling.
The elevator was empty; it smelled of wool afghans and medication. A female voice burst out high and scratchy from an upper floor—a croak like a crazed animal.
The door of the mentor’s room was open. I had brought a book to read to her and a red rose. She would like the description of a child’s very first memory in the novel—an open window, a fluttering curtain.
I might say to her I had started a new work, which was nearly true, as I wanted it very badly and thought of it constantly. I would not say that, instead of writing, I was going to the movies a lot and ate like a child if at all—milk and biscuits.
I wasn’t used to talking much, so I would be direct and ask her what she thought of my play. And she would tell me. I was ready for anything—wanted it.
One of the playwrights in the workshop had said once that all this revising and cutting new work reminded her of stories her older brother terrorized her with, of children torn to pieces in the woods. But I wanted to cut, tear. Understand.
Later at home, I would revise. I meant to return to the clinic as many times as necessary. As many times as she took me back.
The mentor’s room was empty. A nurse suggested I look in the common hall where snacks were being served. “She is eating again since yesterday,” she said with a smile. I felt affection for the mentor not eating and now eating. “She’s there. Go. You’ll find her,” the nurse said. I was concerned I might not. In my dreams, I kept losing things, running upstairs and downstairs, going through door after door. I woke up exhausted.
The dining hall had large windows facing a grey building and a few tables and chairs. There was an emptiness to it—a sense that nobody came in from outside, bringing rain, wind, or an urgency.
An old man and two women in their robes chatted in seemingly disjointed outbursts. They sucked through straws from paper cups. Their conversation did not make any sense, except to them. There was a suggestion of meaning I almost grasped but could not enter.
I had just read that Empedocles thought everything could originate spontaneously with a congregation of random atoms, creating energy by pure chance, at the right moment. Something was starting in my mind while I looked around the room. Possibly the beginning of the new play. I wished I had a notebook.
Just let it get inside your system.
At first, I could not see the mentor. Then I noticed a woman with short hair sitting alone in a wheelchair. She was gazing outside, feeling her neck and chin with her fingers, pulling at her shirt. I could only see part of her face. The nurse had followed me. “See?” she said. “She’s here.”
She was. It was her intensity I recognized. Being in her space made me fully aware that I was there too. Feet, arms. A self in black and white was now in color. This was confusing, but in the workshop, she had said that to surprise oneself was important. She thought that what we knew in full died a little. We existed in the tension toward something—a word, an emotion.
The mentor turned to me, but her eyes glided over my body, the rose, the book. I became aware that the book, the rose, and me standing were all very still. I remembered how she had been absorbed by the movement in the city one day in the workshop and how mad that had made me.
I walked up to her, noticing how very interested she was in the sky. Instead of getting upset, I looked too. Everything visible through the window seemed to have a quality of uncertainty, being on the verge of something else. I saw the light change, the clouds move. Then a slight fog formed. I thought it was beautiful.
She turned to look at me but avoided my eyes, and I knew she did not know who I was. She always said beginnings were easy, but one should not be too confident; it was best to hold back a little. I did. I did nothing. She looked at me again. She turned to the window.
I stood by her with my flower and book. A bird flew by, and her hand went up, her fingers fluttered. Our eyes met, and in that moment, she knew who I was. You love birds. Then it was over; the spark went out, or I was simply not interesting anymore. But she was. She kept looking outside, absorbed in thought. She gave a deep sigh. And another, even deeper. I wanted to reach out to her very badly. I did not know how.
A reaction is not necessarily words. Accept silence as a possibility.
I touched her hand very delicately. She took mine and pressed it against her cheek.
I did not read to her from the novel or ask about my play. I helped her finish her snack and drink a juice. “She likes you,” the nurse said. “See?” I did not think so, and it was fine. I liked her. I remembered her love of music and sang something to her. It was a song from her past she had mentioned once in class. When she dozed off, I left. I put the rose in her room.
I did not take the subway but walked home. New York was busy. I felt like a fish caught in a current, and I let it take me. I called the playwright from the workshop who had written about her mother, and I left her a message about meeting for a drink.
That night, I dreamt the mentor and I were walking together in the dark. We were talking. It was summer. I did not ask where we were going.